By Jeff Lifson
Let’s start with the simple truth here, before this headline raises your blood pressure to the point of “Call the ambulance and bring my bathrobe and slippers to the emergency room.” At West Point, we buy both yearlings and 2-year-olds, and we’re comfortable offering both at various times of the year to our customers.
But there has to be a difference, right? And there have to be pros and cons to owning a piece of a yearling versus a 2-year-old in a racing partnership. There are. And I’m going to spell them out and let the jury – you and other potential racehorse owners – deliberate.
THE OBVIOUS QUESTION: WHAT’S A YEARLING, WHAT’S A 2-YEAR-OLD?
Before I start to list the differences between owning the two, how about some basics? Here goes:
1). A yearling is a horse that is one-year-old. They dropped to the earth, cute as all get out, sometime in the winter and spring on a farm somewhere (generally, but not exclusively, in Kentucky). They are separated from their mommas, referred to as weanlings, and when January 1st of the next year rolls around, they all become 1-year-olds or “yearlings.” They look like a racehorse, but more of a mini-version – an immature one.
2). A 2-year-old is a more polished product. During that extra year, they’ve typically had a saddle and rider on their back and they’ve been taught to gallop on a farm. There are several factors that determine when they start breezing, or going fast. Those factors include whether or not they’re being prepped for a sale, pedigree, owner preferences, maturity, etc.
NEXT OBVIOUS QUESTION: WHERE DO YOU BUY YEARLINGS VS. 2-YEAR-OLD RACEHORSES? IS THERE A DIFFERENCE?
You don’t go to the local box store with your shopping list in your back pocket and horse trailer parked out back with the motor running. You can buy yearlings and 2-year-olds from the folks who raise them at the farm, from trainers who are readying them for the races, and even after they win their first race (although you’ll typically pay a huge premium in this last case – hey, they just won, didn’t they?) In each of these examples, you’re hunting and pecking all over the country or all over the world to find these horses to buy.
Want simpler? Many do. That’s why there are bigger-volume, larger-variety, one-stop shopping places to buy yearlings and 2-year-olds. These are called horse auctions or sales. That’s where we buy, and there are some big differences between yearling and 2-year-old sales.
1). Yearling sales – remember when I said that yearlings are immature racehorses? We certainly aren’t looking at the finished product at a yearling sale, meaning we can’t watch them run when we’re evaluating them.
What we do is look at their family history, in what is known as a sales catalog. Who’s the father (called a stallion or sire)? What kind of racehorse was he? What kind of offspring has he fathered? What about the mom (called a dam or broodmare) and her kids? Have they been successful? And on and on down the family tree.
With yearlings, we have the ability to have a groom pull them out of their stalls so we can eyeball their physique from head to hoof, watch how they move when they walk, and check their attitude during all this poking and prodding. We then start to separate what you like and don’t like.
We also use technology to help us narrow down our list of horses. With yearlings we perform cardio analysis (how big is their heart?) and biomechanical analysis (do all the parts fit together? does the horse use its body efficiently?)
After narrowing down horses that meet our physical, cardo, and biomechanical tests, we call in a veterinarian to examine the horses, looking for potential flaws in breathing, joints, tendons, and ligaments. Then it’s time to decide on our budget once we have a list of horses who “jump through all the hoops”. Then the real fun begins, we head to the sales ring.
2). 2-year-old sales – Remember how a more polished product comes with an extra year of experience? Remember that a 2-year-old has learned how to gallop under saddle and how to have a rider on their back? A 2-year-old is closer to being a ready-for-the-races thoroughbred.
So, at a 2-year-old sale, we have the ability to watch the racehorses run. Big difference from a yearling sale. It happens in a day or two long event called a breeze show, also known as an under tack show – fancy titles for a pretty simple exercise. One after another, these 2-year-olds sprint down the stretch in front of all the potential buyers sitting in the grandstand. The 2-year-olds are timed and videotaped for an eighth, quarter, or sometimes three-eighths of a mile.
This gives a buyer the chance to compare the times and the mechanics of each 2-year-old that flashes by, and it gives that buyer a chance to go back and look at the videotape to refresh their memory on each individual horse before deciding whether or not to start bidding.
Keep in mind that buyers at a 2-year-old sale also do all the evaluating stuff they do at the yearling sales. They look over the catalog pages for the family tree, they pull the horse out of the stall and eyeball the physique, they call in their vet for further testing. But the breeze show is the added element.
Like we do with yearlings, we also perform cardio and biomechanical analysis. We also work with a company who shows us breezes in slow motion, it helps us identify the most fluid, efficient movers. A horse may look good coming down the lane, but the reality could be that the left front twists into the ground, putting the horse at increased risk of injury.
TOP FIVE REASONS TO BUY A YEARLING
1). The less you know, the cheaper the price and the better the breeding. Let’s face it, when you don’t have the ability to watch the horse run, in theory you’re paying for the strength of the family tree and how the horse looks standing in front of you. With that much mystery remaining, you can typically buy more of a potential superstar (on paper, at least) with less money.
2). More variety. We buy at the best-known yearling sales throughout the world, and there are simply more horses available at those sales versus at the 2-year-old sales. If you totaled up all the North American 2-year-old sales horses available in one year, that number would still be fewer than those available at the single largest yearling sale that takes place in Kentucky every fall.
3). Younger horse, fewer issues. It stands to reason that a horse that hasn’t had a rider on its back and hasn’t been asked to gallop and begin to become an athlete will typically have less physical problems that crop up at the point of sale. It’s the new car with low mileage analogy.
4). A lump of clay to mold. If you have kids, think about this – and if you don’t, play along. What if you didn’t have a chance to raise those kids from the moment they arrived at the hospital? Think about the habits you’d like them to develop versus what someone else would develop. And then think of a yearling as a horse that is closer to a newborn than a 2-year-old. A yearling is a lump of clay that your experts can develop at its own pace with your goals for that racehorse in mind.
5). Time – it’s your friend. When you buy a yearling, you’re a while away from racing, so there’s plenty of time to progress through all the steps that go into developing a great racehorse. There’s no pressure to run – racehorses can’t start racing until they’re two, so that’s a non-issue when you buy. If your horse has a setback (it gets sick or it gets hurt or it gets ornery) and you’re dreaming of the Kentucky Derby or the Kentucky Oaks, relax. It’s a long way off. You bought a yearling, so you have TIME.
TOP FIVE REASONS TO BUY A 2-YEAR OLD
1). Knowledge is power. You remember how with a 2-year-old, you can watch a horse run at a breeze show? You can compare times to others running at the same sale, and you can slow down the videotape and really look at a horse’s mechanics as they run hard. That’s a lot more than you can know at a yearling sale.
2). 2-year-olds are sometimes race-ready. Are you so ready to race that you can hardly stand it? Are you dreaming of box seats, post parades, blood-pumping stretch drives and pictures in the winner’s circle? Buy a 2-year old and you could be racing the next week. Most horses that come through a sale need a little time to decompress, but since 2-year-olds are allowed to race in North America, you could buy a horse that you take from the auction ring to winners circle in a matter of days, weeks, or a few short months.
3). These horses have been in the pressure cooker. If a 2-year-old made it to the sales grounds, went through the pressure of the breeze show, and passed all of the other physical tests, then they’ve shown you a lot more than any yearling. A 2-year-old that makes it this far has a stronger likelihood of standing up to the bigger tests of the racetrack.
4). Money, money, money. When you get to the races quicker, you can start earning purse money quicker and start paying for the upkeep of your horse. It doesn’t always work out that way, especially if your 2-year-old takes additional time to prepare to race than you anticipated. But without any setbacks, a 2-year-old is closer to earning its own keep.
5). Money, money, money, part 2. It’s a fact: there are some pretty nice races and purses available to horses that have gone through a specific 2-year-old sale, scheduled throughout the year and across the country. If you’ve got a fast runner, it’s a nice bonus to have in front of you.
TOP REASON NOT TO BUY A YEARLING
You know less, so more can go wrong. When you buy a younger horse, there’s a whole lot that will need to develop before it can race. The horse can go through growth cycles that change the athlete from the superstar you bought to an awkward klutz. And let’s not forget that you’ve never actually seen them run, when you buy a yearling. They can look fast as fast can be, but when it comes time to smash the accelerator at the racetrack, there’s no giddyup there.
TOP REASON NOT TO BUY A 2-YEAR-OLD
You know more, but you’ve stressed the horse to get there. Ask any human athlete how stressful it can be physically and emotionally to train for the big game or the big event. When sellers put pressure on a young 2-year-old to make it to the sales and the breeze show and be successful, it’s pretty darn stressful. There’s wear and tear – physical and mental. That fast-looking 2-year-old might have had its best day possible on the day it went an eighth of a mile down the lane…and is heading south from here on out. You’ve got to be a sharp observer to gauge which of the 2-yearolds that pass all the tests have even better days ahead.
So there you have ‘em – the pros and cons, the benefits and drawbacks, to buying yearlings versus 2-year-olds. Is there a definitive better choice? There is not. When it comes to racing partnerships and making this decision, at West Point we purchase both. The mistake I believe anyone makes is to avoid one type of sale versus the other. You can miss out on a life-changing racehorse that way.